Understanding Francesca Woodman

A new London exhibition of the late photographer’s work offers insight into her subtle flux of styles
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Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Antella, Italy, 1977-1978. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Antella, Italy, 1977-1978. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman

How would you describe Francesca Woodman’s photos? It’s hard to ignore the tragedy of this young American artist, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. Yet, as a new exhibition, opening the Victoria Miro gallery in Mayfair, London, next week, makes clear, there’s far more to her work than monochromatic bleakness.

 

Francesca Woodman Untitled, New York, 1979-80. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman Untitled, New York, 1979-80. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman was born to the American painter, photographer and ceramicist, George Woodman and his wife, fellow artist Betty Woodman, in 1958. She began to shoot her own photographs in her early teens. Familiar with the pertinent movements in art history, thanks to both her upbringing and her education at the Rhode Island School of Design, she appears to be attuned to surrealism and modernism, aware of the fashionable, neo-gothic look of Edwardian dresses and the artist’s loft, while also playing with other notions, like photographic purity and honesty.

 

Francesca Woodman Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Though it's hard to image, in our monograph, professor Chris Townsend describes how, during the sixties and early seventies, photography “was still viewed as a marginal and problematic form that lacked the status of painting or sculpture.”

While this positioning might have made it more difficult for Woodman to gain recognition, perhaps some the associated freedom fed into her young, inchoate photography, which toys with many styles without hardened into one.

 

Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman
Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman

The new exhibition, called Francesca Woodman, Zigzag, runs 9 September – 4 October 2014, and takes its title from a letter the photographer sent to a friend. She wrote that her photographs are “a long string of images held together by a long compositional zigzag, thus the corner of a building in one frame fits into the elbow of a girl in the next frame into a book in the third frame, the images are both very personal mysterious ones and harsh images of outdoor city life.”

 

Francesca Woodman from Angel Series, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman from Angel Series, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman

It’s an intriguing description, and one that her father picks up on, adding, “‘Modernist abstract art devotes itself to the form of the square, the rectangle, the box, the intersection of streets, the whole right angle world of horizontal and vertical. Domination by a zigzag motif is very rare.” Mr Woodman goes on, “It creates a world of flux without horizon, a rhythmic oscillation. Francesca made studies of zigzags: from representations of houses, noses, hands and baby’s legs. Francesca creates visual puns, jokes and poetry in this series.”

 

Francesca Woodman Untitled, New York, 1979-1980. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman Untitled, New York, 1979-1980. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Look harder at this new selection of prints, which includes ten newly released works from the artist’s estate, and this compositional zigzag becomes clearer. Rather than mourn her death, perhaps its best to celebrate how much Francesca packed into her brief life. For more on the new exhibition, go here. For a richer understanding of her life and work buy our comprehensive monograph, here. 

Francesca Woodman Untitled, New York, 1979-80. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman
Francesca Woodman Untitled, New York, 1979-80. Courtesy George and Betty woodman, and Victoria Miro, London © The Estate of Francesca Woodman





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